As Walder leaves, Cuomo prepares to become accountable for public transportation in New York

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Andrew Cuomo (Azi Paybarah, via flickr)
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Next Friday is Jay Walder’s last day as head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state authority charged with overseeing the subways and buses that make New York City function. Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to select a replacement before then. As Cuomo prepares, finally, to take political ownership of New York City's public transportation system by appointing someone to run it, transit advocates await his decision with some anxiety.

That Cuomo has to seek a replacement at all is a problem that is to some extent of his own making. Walder’s impending departure to run the well-financed Hong Kong transit agency is said to be due, in good part, to his barely existing relationship with the governor and, perhaps, to a longstanding perception that Cuomo isn't particularly focused on transportation issues anyway.

It's not an easy position to fill. The universe of professionals capable of running a transit agency with a daily subway and bus ridership of 7 million is small. The universe of qualified professionals who want to do so, given the thankless nature of running the authority during a recession, is even smaller. 

In August, Cuomo appointed a search committee to recommend a series of candidates. The 20-person commitee included good-government, transit-advocate types like NYPIRG's Gene Russianoff and the Regional Plan Association's Robert Yaro, as well as Cuomo confidants like Mary Ann Crotty and Howard Glaser.

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The panel has reportedly narrowed the field from 11 people to six: Rudy Giuliani’s former budget director and former deputy mayor Joseph Lhota; Neil Peterson, who's headed transit agencies in California and Seattle and founded Flexcar, the car-sharing service that later merged with Zipcar; Thomas Prendergast, president of New York City Transit, an arm of the MTA; former Chicago aviation commissioner Nuria Fernandez; one-time Massachusetts Bay Transporation Authority head Daniel Grabauskas; and Karen Rae, an Obama appointee who serves as deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.

Now it will be up to Cuomo to pick from among them.

“There is only one person here who appoints,” said Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president and Democratic mayoral candidate, and a member of the search committee. “That’s the governor. Is there an unqualified person in this bunch? I don’t think so.”

One name has, however, floated to the top of the list, according to the News: Lhota.

The initial reaction to this trial balloon among transportation advocates has been ... restrained.

“I’m willing to give anyone the benefit of the doubt,” said one advocate, echoing other advocates interviewed for this article. “We’ve been surprised in the past by appointees.”

That hesitation has something to do with the fact that Lhota is not, like Walder, a transportation expert and booster. He is a fiscally conservative Republican whose presumed strength is his ability to manage organizations and balance budgets.

In theory, that's a particularly useful skill to have right now, given the perilous financial situation the authority currently finds itself in. The authority's budget increasingly relies on taxes and fees that are dependent on the health of the economy, and the economy is not healthy.

“[D]edicated revenues do not assure stable funding,” noted an August report by the Independent Budget Office. “Some of the largest dedicated revenues—the property transfer taxes being a prime example—have proven quite volatile, rising and falling to unexpected highs and lows with the business cycle.”

“Another challenge facing the MTA is filling the $9.9 billion funding gap in the last three years of its capital program that covers 2010 through 2014,” said the state comptroller’s office in September.

To help close that gap, the M.T.A. has proposed taking on an additional $6.3 billion in debt (bringing the total to $14.8 billion), which makes deficit hawks unhappy.

"[The M.T.A.] needs somebody obviously who understands our customers, our workforce, our infrastructure challenges and maintenance challenges as well as our financial challenges,” said Ferrer.

Those financial challenges, he said, “are not trivial.”

Lhota is not without experience in transit; he sat on the board of the M.T.A. and, as deputy mayor for operations, he oversaw the city Department of Transportation.

But his primary qualifications would seem to have more to do with experience in public finance.  He worked in public finance at Paine Webber and then at First Boston Corp., until he was named director of economic development initiatives under Giuliani in 1994. In 1995, when he was 40 years old, he was appointed finance commissioner. Later that year, he was elevated to budget director.

He’s also, obviously, quite experienced in politics. And he’s known Andrew Cuomo for years, which is an asset in Cuomoland, where trust is paramount.

Which is not to say that he's a yes-man.

“Of the Rudy people, he was the one most likely to roll his eyes when one of the sycophants said, ‘Yes, Rudy you should be pope,'” said someone who worked in City Hall at the same time as Lhota. “He got where he was in that administration not by blowing smoke up Rudy’s ass but by being competent. And all these guys went off to Giuliani Partners and he didn’t. I think pretty highly of Lhota.”

“I promised myself I wouldn’t talk to any reporters,” said Lhota, when reached by cellphone. He declined further comment.

An administration official I talked to would only say, "We have a short list of six recommended by the committee. He is one of the six."

Until a new authority head is installed, M.T.A. vice chairman Andrew Saul will serve as acting head of the authority.

From the transportation-advocate perspective, whatever selection Cuomo ends up making will be good news, in a sense.

"The positive thing of the changeover in leadership, is that Cuomo owns this agency now,” said Russianoff. “It’s his person. And that has its political ramifications.”